Wall outside KALW (photo: Jennifer Waits)
Now that summer is here, it seems like the perfect opportunity to visit some nearby radio stations. I'd met General Manager Matt Martin of KALW two years ago at the National Federation of Community Broadcasters conference and ever since that time, I'd be meaning to stop by the San Francisco-based public radio station. After running into Martin again this year, I decided that I'd waited far too long to visit.
KALW entrance (photo: J. Waits)
On June 20, 2013, I took a short drive to KALW's headquarters at the Philip and Sala Burton High School in San Francisco. Licensed to the San Francisco Unified School District, KALW was actually the first non-commercial FM radio station west of the Mississippi and started broadcasting in 1941.
Originally broadcasting from Gompers High School, it eventually moved to O'Connell High School and finally to Burton High School in 1996. According to the KALW website,
"After demonstrating its experimental 'frequency modulation' radio technology at the 1939-40 San Francisco International Exposition on Treasure Island, RCA sold its equipment and transmitter to the San Francisco public schools...On September 1st, regular broadcasts begin from studios at Gompers High School. Early programs included 'Operetta Gems,' 'Where To Go in San Francisco,' 'Luncheon Music' and 'Know Your City Government.'"
Historical tidbits posted on wall at KALW (photo: J. Waits)
Located at the back of Burton High School, KALW is tucked away in its own section of the high school. Although it's an independently-run radio station, Martin told me that he's been excited about recent collaborative efforts between students at the school and KALW. Although they've had student interns in the past (some of whom have continued to work at the station), the new high school radio program will be even more formalized due to some recent partnerships. Four high school students are training at KALW this summer and Martin said that they had so many student applicants this year, that they had to turn people away.
Lockers at Burton High School near KALW studio and offices (photo: J. Waits)
Although the school district provides needed infrastructure (providing the space and some administrative support as far as accounting and human resources), it doesn't support KALW financially. Martin said that he's grateful that the school has allowed the station to not only be housed on campus, but to also expand. He showed me an extra room that they got access to, allowing for many more staff members to work comfortably at the station. He doesn't take those perks lightly and said, "I want to be an asset to the school." In part, that's why it's been important to expand the high school radio program at KALW.
KALW lobby (photo: J. Waits)
In addition to high school students, members of the community can also volunteer and gain radio training at KALW. Martin told me that the news and public affairs group is formalizing its training program with a specific curriculum. On the day that I visited, a post on the KALW website announced that applications are now being accepted for the KALW News Audio Academy. During the 10-month program, individuals will learn about and participate in radio journalism projects at the station. This program is an example of the important role of volunteers at KALW. Martin estimated that more than 100 volunteers take on a variety of tasks at the station, from administrative projects to staffing promotions tables at events to programming/hosting radio shows. Additionally, around 25 people at the station earn a paycheck, although some are doing part-time work.
KALW Studio (photo: J. Waits)
KALW's schedule contains a mix of programming from both syndicated sources (NPR, BBC) and from local producers, with approximately 36 hours of local programming a week. Although the schedule skews more heavily toward public affairs and talk programming, there are also some music shows that mainly air in the evenings and on weekends. Martin said that music is an important part of the station and that it's also an entry point to the station for many listeners. I was surprised to hear that KALW has no music library, either digital or physical, as DJs typically bring in their own music to play.
KALW studio (photo: J. Waits)
What's intrigued me lately about KALW is the range of creative projects that the station has taken part in, including a community storytelling project called Hear Here and a crowd-sourced sound project called Audiograph. Martin said that in large part these creative endeavors are because of the talented group of people at the station. He said that a lot of the people working or volunteering at KALW are "actively involved in other creative communities."
KALW volunteers and staff at work in the newsroom (photo: J. Waits)
When I asked Martin whether he considered KALW to be a public radio station or a community radio station, he said that he wasn't sure if listeners really cared about those distinctions. He agreed that the station was a hybrid and said that he took pride in the "high quality of local programming" that it produces. He said that the station has expanded tremendously in the past decade and credited former General Manager Nicole Sawaya with bringing an "entrepreneurial approach" to KALW. When I asked Martin what makes KALW unique, he said, "we're a creative community enterprise." He said that "local, global, creative programming" is an important goal, meaning that global voices and "neighborhood-level reporting" are both represented.
Reel-to-reel equipment stashed in the corner of the KALW studio (photo: J. Waits)
Some of KALW's creative experiments have been short-form pieces that can occupy small gaps in the program schedule. Martin said that since KALW runs very little underwriting, there are often small spaces adjacent to syndicated shows. He told me that they've learned that "small chunks" of content have "more impact" than they'd assumed. These podcast-length pieces are typically between two and five minutes long and have included the KALW segments 99% Invisible, Audiograph, and Dispatches from Kolkata. Some of them air several times a day during programming gaps (Martin refers to these gaps as "unused real estate").
KALW General Manager Matt Martin in his office (photo: J. Waits)
At the close of my tour, Martin and I chatted about local radio and he gave me some tips about shows that I should tune in to. After leaving the station, I drove through a scenic section of San Francisco, witnessing expansive views from the Visitation Valley/Portola neighborhoods. Although I've lived in San Francisco for decades, I'd never been by McLaren Park and was amazed to see such a big slice of nature in an unexpected place. As I got into more familiar territory, I passed by the exotic street names in the Excelsior neighborhood (Persia, Paris, London), before descending down towards Mission Street.
Thanks to Matt and everyone else at KALW for the great tour and conversation. I'm still catching up on all of my field trip recaps, so be sure to come back to read the remainder of my Portland station reports as well as a few other San Francisco Bay Area visits. Until then, here's a complete list of all of my Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips.